Eric Okoree is confident Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) is set for stratospheric heights even without him, feeling an increasingly strong sense of goodwill from policymakers, researchers and farmers. He speaks with so much passion about the NBA, and this future thrills him, yet he will be admiring whatever comes next from someplace else. At 61, he has just retired from his position as CEO of the NBA.

Okoree sat at the helm of the country’s regulator for eight years as the founding CEO. He looks back with immense gratitude at every single achievement within that time, from overseeing the first environmentally released genetically modified product in Ghana, which he calls historic, to helping set up a formidable biosafety authority from scratch where the situation had looked grim, to tempering the rather esoteric bioscientific language that inspired resistance to an exoteric one that is getting wider acceptance.

“I started the Biosafety Authority almost from nothing, an empty room,” he says. “When I was leaving the Ministry of Environment to the Authority, I was given three staff members: a driver, a secretary, and an administrator to go with me. So, we were four. We went into an empty office space. The first staff meeting we had, we stood on our feet.”

Okoree did not start yesterday. He joined the Ministry of Environment Science, Technology and Innovation, which is the sector ministry for biosafety issues, in the late 1990s. “I was part of the committee that worked with the Attorney General to draft the Ghana Biosafety Law,” he says, with palpable pride. “And I also worked with my Minister in those days in following it up in Parliament, going through the three readings until the passage was done.”

When the Biosafety Authority was being set up, he was among five shortlisted candidates, and he was selected to be its first CEO.

While his reign glitters with an array of achievements, Okoree describes the journey as “up and down, over the hill and in the valley”. In the early stages, after a painstaking formulation of the Biosafety Framework, there came the resultant Bill, and trouble to pass it. It took time to educate and sensitize politicians.

Then came financial constraints, but that did not stop Okoree and his team. Soon, they were announcing the release of Bt cowpea.

“Before then we had already approved confined field trial of GM rice, Bt cowpea, some cotton and high protein sweet potato. That was fine. We were very comfortable because we were doing our work under the law that was then in place. But finally, it became very stressful at the stage of environmental release,” says Okoree.

They had to do a lot of sensitization for stakeholders. At the same time, they were battling lobby groups, who came out guns blazing and even took the NBA to court.

Battling misinformation became a job Okoree devoted himself to, and he thanks partners for their commitment in supporting the nascent regulatory body, which could have crumbled under early pressure. In March 2024, for example, the authority registered 14 events for food, feed and processing. Eight were maize events and six were soybean events. Alongside glowing admiration for this feat came tough criticism and opposition from those who he says are determined to oppose use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country.

“It was basically product registration. And they are not for environmental release or for planting. The products are not in the country, just that Syngenta and Bayer (West and Central Africa) have registered them in Ghana. We are facing the challenge because of public misunderstanding. And this I will describe as mischief from those who have taken a decision to oppose the use of GMOs in Ghana, particularly the Peasant Farmers’ Association,” he says.

With the wrong information fed to the farmers, the Authority has had a tough job convincing them that all is well. Great strides have been made, however. “They (the opposing groups) have interpreted the registration we have done in Ghana to be approval for planting. They are talking about resisting and calling on Ghanaian farmers to refuse to plant the varieties,” he complains.

He has made public awareness one of his key responsibilities in his reign. “They are uninformed yet they are in haste to talk on these matters. Today, we were able to speak to Ghanaians on the main radio station, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, and we have been able to send out press releases to key media houses. We are talking and explaining the issues to the general Ghanaian public. The education is still ongoing and we are trying to let them understand,” he says.

The future of Ghana’s biosafety and bioregulation is bright, he says. The “system” is very receptive to modern biotechnology; “the policy makers believe in it and they trust it, academia believes in it and they trust it, regulators believe in it and they trust it,” he says.

To this end, the Biosafety Authority has developed guidelines in data transportability, genome editing and gene drives.

He hopes that Africa will remain faithful to Agenda 2063, the region’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. He would want to see other African countries coming out with strong and efficient biosafety systems.

When he talks about what he will remember most from the NBA – professional achievements accumulated and lessons learned – his baritone cranks up and his excitement is clear. “I will remember the NBA for what it made me over the period. It has made me an expert in biosafety regulation. It has also made me part of the negotiators for Africa within the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD). It has given me the opportunity to serve on various committees within the CBD,” he says.

Okoree appreciates the opportunity to be part of those who toiled to establish Ghana’s NBA. He also speaks with happiness about the knowledge he gained by contributing to the drafting of the biosafety law, regulations, guidelines, application forms, and a huge number of reports. He is also happy about the experience gained in coordinating a number of donor funded projects on biosafety and biodiversity. “I appreciate the knowledge gained in coaching and mentoring staff. When I look back at the office I am leaving, I am proud of what we have achieved,” he says, truly looking impressed with his record.

Pic courtesy: Earth Negotiations Bulletin